Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author universally considered to be one of the most influential scientists of all time. His epic contributions – which include the three “Newtonian” laws of motion, the universal laws of gravitation, and the physics of light and optics – make him perhaps the fundamental figure in the history of the scientific revolution.
Newton is particularly known for his monumental Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687, in which he laid out the foundations of classical mechanics. Still the most widely read scientific work of all time, it explains the motions of the planets with a single mathematical system and formulates the laws of motion and universal gravitation that remained at the center of the scientific view of the universe for two centuries until Einstein proposed his theory of relativity. Newton also invented calculus, designed and built the first practical reflecting telescope, and made the first scientific calculations of the speed of sound.
Newton was a devoted Christian raised in the Puritan tradition in the Church of England who nonetheless rejected key elements of religious orthodoxy, including principally the doctrine of the trinity, which he characterized as idolatry. The breadth of his “Christian heresy,” however, became evident only after his death, when a box of unknown manuscripts – much of them in the form of original treatises as beautifully written and reasoned as his better-known scientific works – was discovered in a large box in his room.
Most authorities agree that Newton intentionally hid these heretical manuscripts and his theological views from the public, fearing ostracism from Christian religious authorities, the loss of his position at Trinity University, and the almost certain dismissal of his scientific work.
In The Newton Papers, Sarah Dry attributes important gaps in Principia Mathematica to Newton’s desire to cover up the Jewish religious predicate for much of his work and his fear that he and his work would be shunned by the public were that fact to come to light.
One great scientist who believed that Newton had deliberately suppressed public disclosure of his theological writing was Albert Einstein who, in a September 1940 letter to Abraham Shalom Yahuda, opined not only that Newton had kept these writings secret for a good reason, but also advised that they remain unpublished.
In the letter, Einstein further detailed his views on the documents, praising them for shedding light on Newton’s “spiritual workshop” and linking Newton’s scientific discoveries to his theological thinking.
The manuscripts led to a major revision in the fundamental understanding of Newton’s life and work. Jose Faur, a Jewish expert on Newton, may have said it best: Newton believed that “Christian scripture must be understood in light of Hebrew scripture, not the other way around.”
Among other things, the documents prove that Newton subscribed to the fundamental Jewish belief that science is little more than the description of tools employed by G-d in creating the world. Convinced that, as the Talmud states, histakel b’oraisah u’varah alma – i.e., that Y-H-V-H, whom he characterized as “the unique god,” wrote the Torah prior to the creation of the universe and thereafter used it as the architectural plan for creation – he believed that Jewish scripture, and the Hebrew language itself, reflect the cosmic heliocentric harmony of creation and that, in fact, the Jews knew that the sun was the center of the solar system centuries before Copernicus.
As John Maynard Keynes wrote in his seminal paper on the great scientist, Newton “regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty.” Newton was not only the first modern universally renowned scientist to reject the standard academic prohibition against mixing philosophy into pure science and the search for scientific truth, but the “hero of the Enlightenment” also deliberately integrated theology into his scientific analyses, in many instances incorporating specifically Jewish concepts.
For example, Newton relied upon Maimonides’ Hilchot Kiddush Levanah (“Laws of Sanctification of the New Moon”) in his analysis of the Julian calendar, and many respected authorities maintain that the Kabbalah was the source for his theory of gravity. (Interestingly, Gershom Shalom, a renowned authority on Jewish mysticism, argues that gravity is a force that had been known centuries earlier by the Jewish mystics.)
Accepting the Maimonidean idea that the Temple was a microcosm of the earth that revealed the works of G-d and that the depictions of the rites of the Temple service are the key to understanding the structure of the world, Newton drew sophisticated sketches of the Beit HaMikdash as the basis for his studies on the dimensions of the earth.
Newton also devoted considerable effort to examining the amah, the standard biblical unit of Jewish measure, and published his conclusions in A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and Cubits. Intriguingly, he applied his results to the measurements of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which he believed had been based upon the amah. These efforts were hardly marginal, as they underscored the accuracy of his most basic scientific work, including the accuracy of his gravitational theories.
In general, the Newton documents show that he had noteworthy interest in Jewish theology and manifested a deep knowledge of halachic sources, including the Babylonian and Yerushalmi Talmuds and a broad spectrum of rabbinic works including, for example, the commentaries of Saadia Gaon, the Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Sifra, Sefer HaChinuch, and the Bartinurah and Kabbalistic sources.
Contrary to Church teachings and most leading Christian scholars at the time, Newton – who could properly be described as a Zionist – believed that, consistent with the Jewish prophetic teachings, the Jews would ultimately return to Eretz Yisrael and reestablish sovereignty there.
Fascinated by the central role Jews would play in the Messianic era, he attempted to compute when the End of Days would occur. Based on information from the Book of Daniel, which he determined projected the onset of the apocalypse to begin 1,260 years after some unspecified event, he commenced the count from the crowning of Charlemagne as Roman emperor in 800 and concluded that the Messiah would arrive in 2060. The document containing this apocalyptic prediction is among the Newton materials in the Israel National Library.
Newton, whom several critics – including Keynes – fittingly characterize as “a Judaic monotheist of the Maimonidean school,” was especially fascinated by the Rambam. His library boasted a collection of his works, including a dog-eared copy of Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide to the Perplexed”), which underscored his own philosophical attempts to harmonize scripture, theology, and science. One Newton expert noted that he embraced what is essentially a Jewish monotheistic concept of G-d, going so far as to quote the Rambam’s teaching that one can only learn about G-d indirectly through his acts.
Moreover, Newton apparently kept the seven Noachide Laws and, citing Maimonides, believed that Christian salvation could be achieved through observance of the Noachide Laws:
Although the precepts of Noah are not as perfect as the religion of the Scripture, they suffice for salvation…. Indeed, Jews had admitted into their gates heathens who accepted Noah’s precepts, but had not converted to the Law of Moses.
As such, he wrote, there was no need for Jesus’ expiatory death to atone for sins, perhaps the ultimate Christian heretical statement.
Like most university students at the time, Newton acquired a superficial working knowledge of Hebrew as part of his basic education, but he apparently began to focus on developing a greater facility with the language early in his career. In what has become known as “the Fitzwilliam notebook,” in which Newton recorded his thoughts, observations, and mathematical discourses during his years at Trinity College, one page under the heading Nova Cubi Hæbræi Tabella (“A New Hebrew Cubic Table”) contains a complicated Hebrew exercise with 71 Hebrew words and their translations to Latin.
Newton copied the table from Samuel Johnson’s Nova Cubi Hebræi Tabella, which was published in 1627. In the book, Johnson urges readers to “look at the roots in this table, which contains the whole thesaurus of the Hebrew language, at a single glance” and acclaimed it as the way to “discover all roots and commit them to memory in a more fruitful way.” In his rendition, however, Newton improved the original work by including the Hebrew vowel points of the final root consonants to facilitate easier pronunciation.
Newton developed his Hebrew knowledge to the point that he could navigate the Pentateuch in its original language. His knowledge of Hebrew is evidenced, in part, by one of the Newton manuscripts, a work intended to enable readers to identify more than 1,000 words and to learn basic conjugations of Hebrew verbs, and by his personal library, which contained various Hebrew grammars and lexicons with his notes and reading marks.
According to at least one authority, however, Newton “learned about Jewish history and practice mainly through Latin and English translations by more advanced Hebraists.” In fact, Newton himself denied any particular Hebrew skills and, in a letter to Hebraist Caspar Neumann, wrote that when it is necessary to understand difficult or perplexing Hebrew phrases, he turns to experts such as Neumann.
There is little debate, however, that to master Rabbinic literature and halachic sources, Newton did develop the ability to follow Hebrew citations and to evaluate arguments regarding the derivation and interpretation of Hebrew terms.
In his letter to Abraham Shalom Yahuda, cited above, Einstein expressed hope that the Newton documents be housed in a single location to facilitate researchers’ accessibility to the material, and the story of how most of this material ultimately found a home in Israel’s National Museum is intriguing.
The tale begins with Newton’s death in 1727, when his descendants sought to donate his scientific manuscripts to his alma mater, the University of Cambridge. Repelled by the sacrilegious content of the material, however, the university rejected them and, two centuries later, family heirs finally decided to auction them off in a 1936 Sotheby’s auction in London. As a result of the auction, the documents were dispersed amongst many buyers, including Keynes, who purchased most of Newton’s alchemy manuscripts.
Yahuda (1877-1951), a Jewish polymath, linguist, bibliophile, forensic philologist, professor, and researcher, was almost alone in appreciating the importance of the treasure trove of the Newton materials on theology and Biblical exegesis. Arguably the world’s leading expert on Semitic languages, he is considered to have been the only person on earth who could read and speak ancient Assyrian.
Also a collector of rare documents who had accumulated the world’s largest and most valuable privately-held accumulation of rare Arabic books and manuscripts, he went on to successfully reacquire many of the Newton manuscripts for his own collection.
A fervent Zionist in his youth – he even insisted that he was the person best qualified to serve as president of the new Jewish state – Yahuda ultimately had a massive fallout with Chaim Weizmann and the World Zionist Organization over his view on the Zionist attitude toward Arabs. Nonetheless, his widow decided to donate all of her late husband’s manuscripts to the Jewish National Library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Although she publicly announced her gift to the library and spent years cataloguing the material, she ultimately failed to make any such bequest in her will. As such, when she died in 1955, one of the estate trustees objected to the donation, leading to a decade-long court battle ultimately resolved by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in Hebrew University Assn. v. Nye, which ruled in favor of the library.
The library, which put the documents on exhibit for the first time in 2007, has recently digitized the entire collection – about 7,500 handwritten pages – and made them accessible online.
A Sephardic Jew born in Jerusalem to a family that settled in Baghdad after the 1492 Spanish expulsion of the Jews, Yahuda launched his illustrious writing career with the publication of his first book, Kadmoniyot Ha’Aravim (“The Arabs’ Antiquities,” 1893) at age 15. He earned his Ph.D. in Semitic languages at age 17 from the University of Nuremberg with a brilliant thesis on Chovot Halevavot (“Duties of the Heart”), the magnum opus by R. Yehudah ibn Pakuda, a renowned 11th century Jewish thinker.
The son of a rav, Yahuda was rejected by his family when he was caught smoking a cigarette on Shabbat. As a professor at various prestigious institutions – including Berlin University where he taught Semitic philology as head of its Department of Biblical Studies and Semitic Languages – he refused to follow halacha; perpetrated his own controversial views of Judaism; and caused an uproar by lecturing on the Bible without wearing a yarmulke.